The taboo of fiscal secularism

February 16, 2024

By Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin

Former mayor of Gatineau (2013-2021)

La Presse, Montreal, February 15, 2024

Radio-Canada’s programme Enquête recently highlighted the fact that while religious organisations are increasingly short of faithful, they are not short of money. The congregations that were the subject of the Enquête report alone have assets worth nearly a billion dollars.

The generous tax exemptions enjoyed by religious organisations are one of the sources of their wealth. Luc Grenon of the Université de Sherbrooke, one of the few researchers to take an interest in the issue, calculated in 2012 that, at federal level alone, taxpayers were missing out on a billion dollars a year. More recently, in 2019, Le Devoir reported that property and school tax exemptions deprived municipalities of $162.2 million a year and the Quebec government of $20.1 million.

Enquête also highlighted grey areas that are costing taxpayers a lot of money. The Séminaire de Québec manages 201 hunting and fishing clubs and leases land to wind farms. All this income is tax-free. Another example, this time from Le Devoir, is St Joseph’s Oratory, which receives two million visitors a year and generates $18 million in revenue. The site is valued at $63.5 million. It too is exempt from property tax.

One last case. In a recent case between the municipality of Boisbriand and a Hasidic school, the judges ruled in favour of the religious community and exempted the school from paying property taxes, depriving the municipality of $382,000 a year. The school in question teaches nothing other than Hasidic religious precepts, and to do so it separates boys and girls.

These exemptions date from a time when religious congregations provided essential public services such as health and education. Today, the State has taken over, and the Churches have little presence in the field of social services or even charity, by their own admission.

In fact, in Canada, to obtain the status of registered charity, which allows them to issue tax receipts, religious organisations have only one obligation: “to promote the advancement of religion”. In 2012, again according to Luc Grenon, one out of every two religious charities stated that it allocated no resources to anything other than promoting religion. Not a penny for charity, all for religion. Everything.

In the end, according to Luc Grenon, barely 15% of all funds raised by religious organisations through charitable donations are spent on anything other than pastoral care. We can therefore estimate that the federal government is depriving itself of 850 million a year and that all taxpayers, even atheists and agnostics, are funding religious organisations… and the values they transmit. This is clearly a flagrant contradiction of the principles of secularism to which both Canada and Quebec claim to adhere. It’s time to lift the taboo surrounding these exemptions and clean up the mess.

As Enquête has shown, religious communities do not err on the side of transparency, to say the least. The administrative and financial links between religious communities, dioceses and parishes are far from obvious. While some communities are wealthy, some parishes are penniless. It’s not easy to answer the simple question: who is responsible for what? According to lawyer Pierre Boivin, through various administrative operations, some religious congregations are even trying to protect their assets from claims by victims of abuse.

Much of what the churches own today was acquired thanks to tax benefits granted by the State and the donations and efforts of the faithful. Contrary to what the spokespersons for the Churches claim, they are not just private assets, they are also common property.

If the government wants to put an end to exemptions, which it should, it must act with caution. Some parishes are already abandoning churches, claiming that heritage is none of their business: we mustn’t rush into closures and lose more beautiful temples. What’s more, the government could make mixed (religious and secular) use of facilities possible, which would facilitate conversion projects5.

Finally, it could also decide that, for a few years, all the money raised by abolishing exemptions would be reinvested in safeguarding religious heritage or converting churches. This would kill two birds with one stone: it would respect its own principles of secularism, religions would fund themselves, and it would protect buildings and works of art that are at the heart of our history and our landscapes.

Translated by DeepL, verified by Michel Virard.

Michel Virard